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Schools bracing for deep cutbacks

With stimulus funds gone, no relief in sight

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 13, 2010

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School administrators across the state are crafting bleak budgets for the next school year and warning of steep cutbacks, including teacher layoffs, to cope with a probable sharp drop in funding from Beacon Hill and dwindling federal stimulus money.

Though schools grappled with thinned-down budgets last year, they got relief from a massive infusion of federal education dollars that is now all but spent, and officials are bracing for cuts that go deep into the classroom.

Arlington is weighing the elimination of 21 elementary school teaching positions. Needham, for the first time in recent memory, is also proposing that teaching positions be cut, despite growing enrollment. Hingham, facing a $3 million deficit, has similarly placed 33 teaching positions on the block. Brockton is looking at a staggering shortfall that could approach $20 million.

“We dodged a bullet last year,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “Now, people have taken the panic buttons out and are keeping them close. There’s an unprecedented level of angst, and it’s evolving into anger.’’

Most school budgets remain in the blueprint stage, as educators wait for Governor Deval Patrick to unveil his spending plan later this month, an announcement that will begin the months-long budget process in earnest.

Some school leaders are reluctant to discuss potential layoffs, wary of harming teachers’ morale. But many said the emerging scope of the crisis makes staff reductions nearly inevitable, with the state reeling from anemic tax collections and residents reluctant to approve property tax increases.

“Over the last couple of years, schools have tried their best to avoid it,’’ said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “They’ve virtually annihilated everything else: administrators, textbooks, supplies, infrastructure needs. But now there’s no place for them to go but into the marrow of the classroom.’’

While the economy is showing some signs of life, Massachusetts still faces a yawning budget deficit, with one budget watchdog group placing it at $3 billion.

Last year, the state aggressively tapped its savings and spent the bulk of the roughly $800 million in education funds from the federal stimulus package to minimize budget losses. This year, state leaders do not have that luxury.

“Every city and town is likely to face steep local aid cuts,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “You just don’t know how steep.’’

In recent weeks, state officials have warned local school administrators to expect sharp cuts in local subsidies, although legislators will not determine the final total for several months. In poorer school systems that rely heavily on state assistance, the prospect is alarming.

“We’ve been told to prepare for cuts of 5 to 10 percent,’’ said Aldo Petronio, executive director of financial services for Brockton public schools. “That would be devastating.’’

Brockton, a city rocked by the housing crisis, starkly illustrates the potential affect of education cuts. Last year, the district received $126 million in state funds, which comprised more than 80 percent of its total budget, and another $6.5 million from the federal stimulus package. This year, a sizable chunk of that aid is in jeopardy and, with it, many jobs.

“You can do the math,’’ he said.

The depth of the financial woes sparked a legislative rush earlier this month, with lawmakers passing an education overhaul that will better position the state to qualify for about $250 million reserved for states that aggressively work to improve lackluster schools.

“Last year, the stimulus money provided a lot of cushion,’’ Scott said. “This year it’s not there, and people are bracing for the worst.’’

Legislative leaders have told educators to expect cuts in school assistance, which enjoys strong public support and is fiercely protected by advocates. But given the magnitude of the state’s financial hole, many assume that every budget item is on the table.

“Everyone’s bracing for a cut,’’ said Superintendent John Antonucci of Westwood, who will present a budget with no increase to the School Committee tomorrow. “That means we need to reduce in a lot of areas. That ‘do-more-with-less mentality,’ you can only do that for so long.’’

The budget calls for teachers to go without a cost-of-living salary increase for a second straight year, and many educators predict that financial constraints will make contract negotiations between administrators and teachers more contentious.

“We’re extremely concerned,’’ said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “Last year, I don’t think the layoffs were as bad as expected because of the stimulus money. Now, it looks like we’re going to be facing some incredibly lean years.’’

Several difficult budget cycles have left schools with virtually no financial margin, others said.

“At some point it all comes home to roost,’’ Scott said.